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Leisure • Travel

Three Essays on Flight

1. The Airport

They have become — quite unfairly — associated with aggravation and ugliness, but more imaginatively considered, they are among the most impressive structures ever put up by our wretched species. If we were tasked with showing a visiting Martian the best of human capacities, we could do worst than to take them to the airport for a look around.

Tom Hegen, Frankfurt Airport, 2020. Airports aren’t just places to get us to other places; they deserve to be honoured as destinations in their own right.

We are, for the most part, a messy, indolent, querulous and irrational animal, but in the operations of an airport, we put our better sides forward: our powers of foresight, temperance, reason and ingenuity. At home every night, we shout, despair, curse and degrade, but within the airport precinct, only our more inspiring strengths are encouraged to come emerge: we carefully track and help bring down to earth a 200 tonne airliner approaching the airfield at 150 knots from the south east in a rainstorm; we inspect the fan blades inside an engine that was — only a few hours ago — firing across northern Greenland at temperatures of 1700C, half that of the sun’s surface; we fill two underwing tanks with 230,000 liters of Jet A-1 to carry four hundred people and their luggage to Los Angeles at Mach 0.85.

Within ordinary conversations, we suffer from no end of misunderstandings; we must devote hours to unpicking the gap between what someone said and what they might actually have meant. But there are no such ambiguities out on the runways and aprons. An otherwise taciturn and heavily accented Bulgarian pilot will at once understand a German controller who tells them: ‘Taxi to runway three four; hold short of Delta’ and there will be no one in any of the hundreds of aircraft on the move who won’t immediately know what is at stake in the command: ‘Heading two three zero, runway two seven Left.’

Everywhere in the airport, awesome powers are involved: 72,000 lbs of thrust are being shot onto the runway as a Hanoi-bound 777’s nose points skywards and fourteen 240lb wheels prepare to leave the ground. But the rage is contained, logical, utterly within parameters. No one loses their temper; there is a serenity at the heart of the inferno. A pilot can bring a 73 metre $450m hull the size and weight of many houses to within a millimetre of its designated stop zone on the taxi line. It is like the hand of a giant caressing the brow of a child.

Humans, so unimpressive singly, are united in a giant collective effort of the will to produce a spectacle of rare dignity; airports are the cathedrals or the Roman aqueducts of our time.

There is further hope because of how easy it feels here to escape our present reality. There are endless planes begging to carry us to the other end of the world. The screens are blinking with flights for Montevideo and Tbilisi, Jakarta and Lusaka; the names alone have a poetry to them. We don’t necessarily need to go anywhere; it’s simply immensely reassuring to feel that we could.

The future may have disappointed us in many ways; it is ugly, disputatious and remarkably slow; we’re still waiting for jetpacks and eternal life. But out at the airport, there is an alternative futuristic world waiting for us; showing us what it might be like if human beings could overcome their obtuseness and live up to some of the promises of technology. Though we may be in a hurry to reach our so-called destinations, we don’t necessarily need to go any further than we have; this might have been the best bit of the journey already.

2. The Earth from the Air

The show through the familiar ovaloid window is seldom ever quite the same: on some flights, it features immense horizons illuminated a burning pink by a sun setting somewhere at the edge of a continent. On others, we’re in pitch blackness interrupted only by a thousand stars and an occasional sibling aircraft streaking ruby-red beneath us. On certain journeys, we are granted vistas over the endless icy emptiness of northern Canada or Mongolia, on others, all we can see is a misty ocean traversed, every now and then, by an oil tanker or cargo ship the size of a full stop.

Edward Burtynsky, Cape Coral, Florida, 2012. The further up we climb, the move loveable our species becomes.

Whatever the particularities, these views belong to a unitary category of place that is as universally ignored as it is important, consoling and redemptive: the earth from above. How seldom we pay it the slightest attention; our forebearers would have been astonished and even frightened by our nonchalance. They wouldn’t have known how to stop staring. Leonardo da Vinci and Poussin would have relentlessly sketched the formations of cirrus and cirrostratus clouds; Galileo and Newton might never have recovered their footing. And yet how quick we are to pull down the blind irritably so that we can more clearly follow the story on our screen of two people pretending to fall in love while outside, a pair of Rolls-Royce Trent 1000s carry us over the forbidding 23,000 feet peak of Mount Kanchenjunga.

Humans are notoriously hard to bear at proximity: the closer we are to them, the more they madden and disappoint. Misanthropy is an almost inevitable response to a walk through an average shopping mall. But from up here, our species appears endearing, even sweet. Look at how we build our nests; look at how our motorways wind carefully around our warehouses and how our houses line up in pristine grids along the edges of our settlements. We can peer at the ant colony with unusual tenderness. Down there, the cupboards may be dirty, the kids may be shouting and the garden in a mess — but such infelicities are shielded from the eye above. Even a retail park or bungalow begin to look elegant from a mile up. A benevolence descends; a god might love us if that’s as close as he or she got. It isn’t easy being us. We’re doing our best, going to work in our tiny cars beetling along our miniscule ring roads, trying to earn a living in our mini skyscrapers — before our little lives draw to a close and we’re laid to rest in some toy-like cemeteries just visible somewhere by the window’s edge.

We can be reassured by how much remains not-us. There’s still a lot of sky that we haven’t managed to pollute, a lot of sea on which we don’t normally sail, and a lot of desert in which we haven’t found a way to live. Our infernal chatter takes place within a welcome vastness and silence.

We spend far too long pressed dangerously close against our fears and regrets. We have wasted what might be years worrying about catastrophes that haven’t yet occurred. Up here, an adequate perspective can be restored. The mountains return to being the molehills they are always likely to have been. It doesn’t matter so much who said what to whom at the office, who mislaid the keys or who started the sulk. We’ll try not to pull that blind down again in such a hurry; we’ll strive to pay a bit more attention to the philosophy of sagehood on offer on the other side.

3. The Airline Seat

It’s a very restricted place indeed. On some aircraft, it might not allow us more than a few millimetres of movement. If we are lucky, in the favoured parts of a modern cabin, we might be able to stretch out our legs and turn over onto our sides. But even the most expensive seat in the house won’t be remotely as comfortable as a sofa at home.

SAS Business Class seat, 2019. A pram in which to be carried around the world.

Engineers with years of experience have carefully positioned struts and bracing elements across our backs, cloth woven from the hardiest synthetic fibres has been stretched over fire-retardant pads, electric cables have been threaded within precisely milled aluminium sections to provide for light, sound and power, tiny motors have been concealed within footstools and headrests. It’s a singular kind of throne on which we are travelling around the planet — and, even when our neighbour begins to snore next to us as we cross over the Adaman sea, it is a far more more stately and elaborate affair than anything on which Charlemagne or Montezuma II ever had the privilege to sit.

The last time we were in anything as cosy and well thought-through was, of course, a pram — though the connection understandably tends to be downplayed. The chief parallel is that we cannot really move and have abdicated all responsibility. Once we used to lie back on a pillow or a rolled up blanket and stare up at the passing clouds and the occasional intense face of a well-wisher. There were the rooflines of houses and the flights of seagulls to study. Occasionally we might have been uncomfortable and screamed, but much of the time, we were simply awed by the change of scenery; our horizons had expanded immeasurably since we exchanged the nursery ceiling for this open-air spectacle.

A similarly passive somnolence might descend on us in our airline cot. At first, we might have felt restless and desperate and wondered how we would get through eight hours of this. But now we are a third of the way through and oddly and pleasantly anaesthetised. We’re even rather looking forward to the meal. Of course we could get far better things on the ground, bigger plates, fresher portions, but we would have to move and take decisions and it wouldn’t be so neatly arranged and intricately thought-through. Here everything comes automatically, as when we were ill long ago and someone loving came into our room with a tray. There is something reassuring about the uniform mechanised nature of the offering; the immaculately arranged rectangular plates, the toy cutlery and the chilled perfectly round bread roll. Down below, we struggle in vain to assert our distinctiveness; up here, we’re clearly only 34J and it no longer feels insulting to be so. Why protest at the diminution of our individuality when there are distinct pleasures involved, as there are in a care home, a kindergarten or the better kind of prison? It’s the sense that others know more clearly than us what we should have and that we should just cede our will to them. Daddy and Mummy are up at the front, sending news of our flight path on AFI3 to Dar es Salaam and Kigali, checking the hydraulic pressure on the EICAS and adjusting the trim — while we quietly eat our crackers and inspect the cheesecake — and try to be good.

We are normally oppressed by options. There are so many places we might go and initiatives we might set into motion; it’s never clear that we have done enough. But now we are strapped in and — for a few hours — nothing at all is expected of us. We can do nothing; we can hardly move our head. It may sound unpleasant but having very few options and letting others steer us can, in some circumstances, be tantamount to liberation.

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